No Room by Ben Heaton [Comp03]

IFDB page: No Room
Final placement: 22nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

In a cheeky display of one-upsmanship (or maybe it’s one-DOWNsmanship), No Room trumps the one-room game by having no locations whatsoever. The author explains in a brief note that the PC resides in “the Inform Library itself, which is the most sense Inform could make of my game.” No rooms were harmed, or even created, in the making of this game. Consequently, the entire thing takes place in a dark, empty void, though I don’t think the location description or reactions are the Inform defaults. Thinking about how they got the way they are is making my head hurt, so I’ll stop.

The gimmick is fun, but doesn’t make for much of a game, of course. So No Room is a piece of micro-IF that basically consists of one puzzle. The puzzle is a good one, though it relied on some basic scientific knowledge that was, embarrassingly, just a bit beyond my grasp. But only a bit. Since there’s no location, the entire thing takes place in the dark, and between its darkness and its scientific-puzzle storylessness, the game feels like a cross between Aayela and In The Spotlight, except, of course, there’s no spotlight.

No Room could have used a bit more depth of implementation. Many of my ideas weren’t implemented at all, and a game this small can afford to take a great deal of care in making lots of options possible with its few items. On the other hand, the implemented parts were coded fairly well, and relying entirely on the sense of touch was an intriguing way to experience a puzzle. I was surprised to discover that a few uncommon Inform commands (like PRAY) were given special messages. Some of these messages felt desultory or over-the-top, but some (again, like PRAY) were funny. In fact, if the implementation had been a little less thin, I probably wouldn’t have found myself trying to PRAY in the first place, so maybe it was intentional…? Nah.

Rating: 6.2

Maiden Of The Moonlight by Brian P. Dean [Comp96]

IFDB page: Maiden of the Moonlight
Final placement: 7th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This is a game that has a great deal going for it, but unfortunately has a few downfalls as well. First, the positives: the accompanying text file does an excellent job of setting the scene, and the prose is atmospheric and shadowy enough to produce some genuine chills from the experience of exploring the haunted manor. I enjoyed piecing the story together from the text fragments found in various places in the manse, and felt a genuine interest in how the story was going to turn out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find out in the two hours allotted, and therein lie some of the problems. Some of the puzzles are quite unfair, the most grievous offender being a room which delivers the equivalent of instant death — destruction without warning of the player’s light source, and no mechanism provided for stumbling about in the dark. That same light source must be used with painstaking care, or it sputters out frustratingly early, and the author provides no alternative (or at least, none that I could find.) This was especially maddening so soon after seeing how well Aayela manipulated the same trope. Maiden is both exciting and irritating — it promises drama and intrigue, but many of the obstacles to be overcome along the way are simply brute force barriers, with none of the subtlety of the best interactive fiction.

Prose: The author’s prose does a very nice job of conveying the desolate, decrepit mansion. Descriptions of rooms, objects, and the moonlight peeking into various locations were all quite literate and strong. Also, the Baron’s notes gave his voice a credible Victorian timbre — of course, the Baron was supposed to have lived in the 17th century, so maybe that isn’t such a good thing.

Difficulty: Well, some parts of the work were quite easy to get through, and the pace flowed through them quite smoothly. However, they were stopped dead by the light source puzzles, which made a first-run solution of the game basically impossible.

Technical (coding): Everything was quite smoothly coded. I can’t think of any problems I encountered.

Technical (writing): I’m writing this review a few days after last having played the game, so my memory may be faulty on this count, but I don’t recall any faulty grammar or spelling.

Plot: As I mentioned above, I found Maiden‘s unraveling plot quite engrossing, which made it all the more frustrating to have to be continually restarting the game after my lamp sputtered out. Still, I’m looking forward to returning to the game after the judging period ends in order to find out how I can break the Baron’s curse over his daughter and her paramour.

Puzzles: Addressed in “difficulty”; some were very straightforward, and others were quite impossible. One which I found particularly thorny was the problem of the spikes atop the iron fence. The way I had envisioned the fence was with tall, sharp spikes, while the solution to the puzzle was more suited to something along the lines of barbed wire. Perhaps a more vivid description here would alleviate the problem.

OVERALL — An 8.3

Aayela by Magnus Olsson [Comp96]

IFDB page: Aayela
Final placement: 10th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This review was written more as a series of notes than an actual review. It wasn’t until later in the process of playing the competition entries that I arrived at the style of reviewing each game in detail. My apologies to Magnus for providing such an incomplete evaluation. My main memory of Aayela was that crawling in dark is an interesting device which could make for an intense episode in a longer game (and, in fact, already has in the case of So Far.) As the bulk of this game, it made for an interesting experiment.

Prose: Often good, sometimes a bit over the top. Crawling in the dark hearing ethereal chords is unfortunately a bit reminiscent of So Far. Especially unfortunate if the design of Aayela preceded So Far.

Difficulty: Quite easy actually. An enjoyable vignette.

Technical (coding): Enjoyed being able to feel and smell. Most commands were anticipated quite well. One or two TADS error instances.

Technical (writing): One or two rather glaring mistakes (“an insisten breeze”). On the whole quite proficient.

Plot: Very simple, but serves its purpose.

Puzzles: Again quite simple, but vividly rendered.

OVERALL — a 7.5

About my 1996 IF Competition reviews

The 1995 IF Competition knocked me out. That year, the comp was split (for the first and only time) into two divisions: Inform and TADS. Both of the winning games were fantastic, and the “finishable in two hours” rule broke them out of the Infocom mold that had thus far dictated almost all amateur IF.

The Infocom canon still dominated my own mindset and outlook on IF at that time. I’ll break out phrases like “Infocom-level prose”, and reference various Infocom games to provide a frame of reference for my views on the comp games. 1996 was also the year that Activision released Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces of Infocom, a CD-ROM collection of every Infocom game plus the top 6 games from the 1995 IF Competition. The fact that those amateur games could get the “official” Infocom imprimatur took my breath away. I wanted in, badly.

In 1996, I submitted my own game to the comp, Wearing The Claw. I also decided I’d play and submit scores for every game that had been entered. I did so, running through the games in alphabetical order by filename, which worked out to almost alphabetical order by game, but not quite. So that I could decide what scores to give, I took notes during gameplay, tracking how well the game measured up in categories like prose, puzzles, plot, technical achievement, and so forth.

Having seen reviews posted for the 1995 games, and hoping for a lot of feedback on my own work, I decided quickly to turn my notes into “reviews”, but as the scare quotes should tell you, they’re not exactly worthy of the name, especially the early ones. Even through the process of writing about the games, I was learning how I wanted to write about the games, which was sadly a little inequitable for the games that fell in the early part of the alphabet, and especially for the one that started with “Aa”. Sentence fragments abound, and much of what I wrote was more for myself than anyone else.

By the time I got to the final game, Tapestry, which was brilliant and ended up taking second place, I’d developed a more coherent approach. That approach would also change over the years, but at least it didn’t shortchange Daniel Ravipinto the way that it had Magnus Olsson, author of Aayela. That said, I’ve cleaned up these reviews a little, at least standardizing the punctuation and capitalization.

For the 1996 comp game reviews, I’ll provide the following:

  • IFDB page
  • Final comp placement
  • Intro sentences
  • Assessments of the following attributes:
    • Prose
    • Difficulty
    • Technical achievement, split into writing and coding subcategories
    • Plot
    • Puzzles
  • Overall score

I originally posted my reviews for the 1996 IF Competition games on December 3, 1996.